change the system not the symptom

Change the System, Not the Symptom

For a little over a year, early in my time in the military, I had to wake up at 3:00 a.m. This was to walk to the special programs physical training (P.T.) workout that started at 3:45 on the other side of the base.

My routine was pretty robotic. I’d be out of bed as quickly as possible to silence my alarm because I had roommates who weren’t involved in special programs and didn’t start their day for another five hours. I’d put contacts in (I didn’t get eye surgery until several years later), get dressed, drink a tiny amount of whey protein or a recovery powder, grab a small pack with a towel and goggles and be out the door by 3:14.

At 3:20 I was down five flights of stairs and waiting under a streetlight in front of my barracks for a friend. By 3:35 I was checked in, standing in line with my boat crew and waiting for the doors to open for about two hours of training.

There was close to zero wiggle room in this routine. An extra five minutes in bed would mean that my friend would fall behind schedule for the handful of minutes he might wait for me and that we would both be too late to get checked into our boat crews before the doors opened unless we ran the whole way.

The main weak point in this process was simply getting out of bed. In the middle of winter in Chicago with wind beating snow against the window at three a.m. there’s not much I would have rather done than stay warm in my bed a few moments longer before trudging through a snowstorm in ridiculous UDT shorts and a hoodie to get in a pool and try not to drown.

My solution to make sure I was always on time had nothing to do with an inordinate amount of willpower. I simply put my alarm clock on a shelf on the other side of the room. As soon as it went off, I had to get completely out of bed to shut it off, and I had to do it quickly in order to not be a complete asshole to my roommates. Staying in bed longer wasn’t an option.

You’ve probably heard some of the talk lately about stand up desks and how detrimental hours of continuous sitting can be. I spend quite a bit of time on my laptop and I know that I should spend more of it standing.

My solution to this again has little to do with constantly chastising myself to stand. I just put my laptop on top of a box on my desk (plus a few books to get the right height) that’s just big enough that I can’t really set my laptop anywhere else but on top of it and still use it comfortably. To move my laptop, toss the books aside and move the box so that I can put my laptop back onto my desk is more annoying than to just work on it while standing, which is what I end up doing much of the time.

We all make grandiose plans for our future selves. “On Monday, I’m going to start learning a new language, working out early every morning and eating better. I’ll go to that butcher shop and get grass fed beef for dinner along with my kale and blueberries. I’ll watch nothing but independent films and documentaries on tv and only do that after I’ve re-shingled the roof.”

The thing is, we never actually meet our future selves, and they’ll never get around to any of the tasks we assign to them because when that projected future time rolls around it’s our experiencing selves who take charge. And the last time they faced the idea of all that stuff that required willpower our current selves just dumped it on that other guy in the future.

A great example of this poor forecasting from David Mcraney is that you may have a Netflix queue with a hundred different great films that you keep telling yourself you should watch sometime, but when the moment actually comes to choose something you end up watching Jim Carrey get the suitcase to Aspen.

It’s extremely easy to hit the snooze button or lay in bed an extra few minutes too long, but that’s not likely to be remedied by just convincing yourself that tomorrow will be different. Staying in bed is a symptom of the system as a whole; a byproduct. By changing that system so that it was no longer easy to stay in bed or hit the snooze alarm, it became a non-issue.

If I had an option to sit in a nice cozy chair in front of a desk I’d probably do that, even if I was making a mental note to myself that I really should invest in a standing desk sometime. Instead, I did something easy to change the system so that in the future the path of least resistance is to do the thing that I know is better in the long run.

Take this into account when making plans, especially when those plans involve a deviation from your normal habits or doing something that requires finite willpower. Think of a drop of water. You want it to get from point A to point B. You’re not going to expect the water to get there because that’s what’s good for it. You expect it to get there because that’s where gravity will take it, and if that environment were to change, so would the path of the water.

We’re not as different from that drop of water as you may like to think. Our actual control over our future actions is limited. What can be controlled, however, is what you do right now to shape your future environment so that the path of least resistance is the one you actually want yourself to take.


Scroll to Top